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Finding Serendipity: Creating Authentic Writing Experiences for Young Writers

By Paul Emerich France
 | Jan 07, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-179119406_x300The printed word often is taken for granted. It’s everywhere you look—billboards, signs, our mobile devices. We rarely stop to think about its origin, that print once was a commodity, a symbol of privilege, holding a clear and authentic purpose: to communicate with one another over distance, over time, and across cultures.

The power of the printed word has become diluted through systematized and widespread dissemination of literacy in the Industrial Era, both in everyday life and in the classroom, dramatically changing the way children learned to read and write through phonics readers and handwriting books. It wasn’t long before these decontextualized and inauthentic forms of literacy were found virtually everywhere, used to teach children at large scale in the typical Industrial Era manner. In fact, using these resources, in addition to new at-scale resources such as basal reading sets and other prescriptive curricula, to scale effective literacy instruction to large groups of children is still commonplace in many classrooms today.

But what many have not realized is that literacy has lost a great deal of its authenticity by making it a decontextualized, rote chore, one with which many students comply but actually despise. I think there’s a relatively easy way to amend this through contextualized tasks that promote an authentic desire to communicate with one another—just as the printed word was originally intended.

As I began working with 4-, 5-, and 6-year-olds this year, my primary objective was to foster a love of writing. Our school was new, having just opened in Palo Alto, CA, filled with fresh, bright faces and budding friendships, immersed in a town waiting to be explored. A writing project seemed like the perfect way to do it.

We conducted a study of Palo Alto, where we walked the neighborhoods, took pictures, asked questions, and even built a small three-dimensional model of the city, all culminating with a writing project that documented our findings.

“We’re going to make a magazine,” I told my students, “so we can share with our families what we’ve learned about our new community!”

“I want to write about City Hall!” one student exclaimed, sending my students into a flurry of chatter. Soon enough, all of our tablets were out and my students were flipping through pictures from our community walk, writing and drawing about buildings and other places they saw.

Although the project managed to unite us as a class, it also made it incredibly easy for me, as the writing workshop facilitator, to personalize for content, learning process, and ability level. I worked with some students on paragraph structure, sentence ordering, and identifying independent clauses and with emergent writers on word building, letter formation, and fine motor skills.

By gaining the momentum for a love of writing in this first project, we were propelled into our next learning arc when we studied stories. We partnered with a local nonprofit preschool and wrote stories for preschoolers who didn’t have access to as many books as we do. My students’ eyes, ears, and brains lit up when I read the list of names of children they’d be writing for, once again igniting the need to write for a real audience—and for an authentic purpose—within them.

This may sound like a whole new way of planning writing, but getting started is quite simple.

Start with resources you know. Lucy Calkins’s Writing Workshop model is great for creating the structure for a real-world writing workshop. When I began teaching writing, I followed a curriculum and found that it gave me a framework for strong lesson structure and helped me plan with the end in mind while constantly assessing through conferring. With time, I slowly removed my own curricular scaffolding, and you can, too, as you become more fluent with planning and preparing real-world writing workshop lessons, unique to the environment around your classroom. These structures then support both you and your students, even in the face of new content and opportunities that can arise only out of real-world serendipity. It is through this serendipity that you can bring the outside world into your minilessons, and your minilessons into the outside world.

Somewhere, literacy lost its purpose in the classroom. Educators forgot that literacy not only is a means for greater opportunity down the road, but also has a greater social purpose: It allows us to connect with one another, to develop empathy with the outside world, and to make sure that each of our voices are heard. In this manner, serendipitous literacy is everywhere; you simply have to find the right serendipity.

paul france headshotPaul Emerich France, an ILA member since 2011, is a K–5 educator, National Board Certified teacher, reading specialist, and freelance writer. On his blog, InspirED, he writes stories from the classroom as well as commentaries on current policy and social justice education.

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